In 2018 aftermath of the elections that brought the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party of President Julius Maada Bio to power, news had circulated around the country that the land agreement signed by the then All Peoples Congress party of former President Ernest Bai Koroma with SOCFIN Oil Palm Company was going to be revoked. This speculative mood of the country was based on the fact that the said land agreement signed in 2010 was not in line with standard protocol in adherence to informed prior local consent. Little wonder why the area has been volatile now and then.
In 2011, Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. (Socfin SL, a subsidiary of the Luxembourg-based multinational Socfin, or Société Financière des Caoutchoucs) secured a 50-year lease for 6,500 hectares of prime farmland for rubber and oil palm plantations in the Malen Chiefdom in the Pujehun district of southern Sierra Leone. Activists say the deal took place between Malen’s Paramount Chief Victor Brima Kebbie, government officials and Socfin, without the proper consultation of the area’s 30 communities, which are home to almost 50,000 inhabitants. Sierra Leone’s farmers continue to fight multinational land grabs – Equal Times
It was therefore not surprising that the new government upon assuming power sought to respond to a deep-seated land controversy. Current Vice President Juldeh Jalloh was then dispatched to the Malen chiefdom headquarter township of Sahn in the Pujehun district, southern Sierra Leone. This is where SOCFIN Agriculture Company operates a mill producing undisclosed tons of palm oil for export.
The Company organized a stage-managed fanfare to welcome the Vice President on that sunny day. They wanted to spin a yarn to make-believe- all was fine, the locals are happy… So, the drums were sounding, the motor-bikes and vehicles hooting. Amidst the din, one muted voice was discernible at the portal of the township. She was the lone voice that was out to protest against SOCFIN and tried to draw the attention of the Vice President to her message. In her typical traditional woman style of dress- brown lappa suit and matching head tie, keen observers saw her frolicking in the air, trying to capture attention. She was chanting in a fit of frenzy like saying to the Vice President: “don’t be deceived, we are victims, hear our story before going to the oil mill…”
But the Vice-Presidential motorcade sped on without noticing Aminata K Fabba in her 40s. She is the Chairlady of the Malen Land Owners Association, (MALOA). She qualifies to be labeled as frontline grassroots land rights defender in the southern provincial district of Pujehun.
There she stood in the hot burning sun, pretty despondent and lost in the whirlpool of dust emitted by the convoy of screeching speeding tires of the Vice-Presidential motorcade. The Vice President was taken on conducted tour of the plantation and oil mill facilities. Whatever became of the Veep’s findings remains a little-known story. But what followed has been the progressive expansion of the company, including efforts to break down all grassroots structures of dissent using State security.
The Police and army were recently involved in payment of controversial land lease fee of USD2.50 per hectare as against the legally stipulated USD 12 per hectare. The policy in force recommends a price of 12 US$ per hectare, which the law (Cap 122) requires investors to pay directly to the District Council, then responsible for further distribution.
After the Vice President left Malen chiefdom, Aminata Fabba, Chairlady of Malen Land Owners Association had the opportunity to speak out at the First Peoples’ Hearing of Mano River CSO Platform. She was invited by Green Advocate International, operating a subregional secretariat in Monrovia.
The Makeni event offered grassroot frontline defenders’ space to tell their stories, their ordeals in challenging land grabs and environmental degradation. They spoke out to find protection and redress in dealing with the abuses and violations.
In her testimony, Aminata Fabba disclosed that they are suffering in the hands of SOCFIN and referenced the 2018 International Women’s Day, when they suffered the consequences of tear gas canister explosion from the police. She said they were appalled by the fact that their Paramount Chief – who should have defended them – could not do anything as he is complicit in the unfair land deal that has disposed them of their means of livelihood. She said in another skirmish in January 2019, two of their supporters of MALOA were reportedly shot dead by the army at a place called Jao Junction.
According to Aminata Fabba, their leader of MALOA and Member of Parliament had informed them about a constituency allotment to construct an office in the chiefdom. She claimed that saboteurs, apparently instigated by SOCFIN, launched a disinformation campaign to disrupt their plan to celebrate the good news. The army disrupted their mass meeting, leading to the death of two people. Other members of MALOA went on exile in neighboring Sowa chiefdom, she explained.
Aminata Fabba also explained eighteen of the members were framed with criminal charges and sent to court. She lamented the fact that because of the terroristic tactics masterminded by SOCFIN, their children have missed out on school during their stay in exile.
Aminata Fabba story is one of bravado and fortitude in adversity of a woman standing up for something that transcends the personal. She has dared to go against the fray in looking for avenues to raise awareness and concern over an unfair land agreement which details were not fully explained to the landholding families.
Nowadays, the community is fighting the implications of the land evictions they faced, while struggling with poverty and the lack of access to primary livelihood.
MALOA complained in a social media post that SOCFIN is opposed to grassroot frontline defenders’ attendance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, (RSPO). This is a red flag raised by the embattled founder of MALOA, Hon. Siaka Sama, who had in the past been imprisoned for his trenchant advocacy against the company using MALOA that Aminata Fabba is chairlady. What is happening in the company’s maneuvers to divide the group is an affirmation of the testimonies of Aminata at the Makeni Peoples summit.